Program Offers Housing Assistance for Servicemembers

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Joseph Sikes, director for housing and competitive sourcing in the office of the deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, spoke today during a "DoDLive" bloggers roundtable about a recent Defense Department announcement of temporary expansion of the Homeowners Assistance Program.

The program, which began in the 1960s, will use $555 million in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to partially reimburse eligible military personnel, surviving spouses, and federal employees whose service to the nation has required them to relocate and sell their primary residence at a loss.

"We think this is really important in the department, because it's hard to concentrate on defending your country if you're worried about your house being foreclosed upon back home," Sikes said. "It's great to be able to actually start to take care of some of those families that are out there right now."

To be eligible for the aid, both the value of the applicant's home and the housing market in the area has to have dropped by at least 10 percent. Sikes said the program doesn't want to buy a lot of houses that are on rocky mortgages, but neither does it want to cull out those who are far behind on payments.

"The theory behind [the base requirement] is that if somebody is in a great market and their house is screwed up, ... they're not going to end up qualifying," he said. "It has to be looked at on an individual basis, because markets are not exactly homogenous."

The aim, he said, is to help those who are going to have trouble selling their home because of the local market and the value of the house itself.

Sikes acknowledged that concern exists that the program is underfunded because the $555 million was an estimated amount included in the stimulus bill. The program's administrators budgeted the funds so they can properly distribute the money through Dec. 31 for permanent-change-of-station moves, he explained, while they continue to seek more funding to continue the program.

"We've set aside money to make sure that we would always be able to take care of the wounded warriors and the surviving spouses, and also to take care of our required [base realignment and closure] moves, which could go out to 2011," he said.

Though some feared initially that BRAC moves would take up the bulk of the program's available funds, Sikes said, 80 to 90 percent of the applications submitted so far have been for permanent changes of station.

"This may be because many of the BRAC moves aren't occurring until 2010 and 2011, but it looks like most of our applications have been related to permanent-change-of-station moves," Sikes said.

About 4 or 5 percent of the applicants have been wounded warriors or surviving spouses. But because no "end" is planned in the program for servicemembers and families in those categories, money already was set aside to accommodate surviving spouses or wounded warriors.

"If anything, we may have done that conservatively, so there could actually be extra money there," Sikes said. "But for now, we're making sure we can pay for people in that awful situation."

As more claims come in and more data can be gathered, Sikes explained, estimates for funding will become more accurate. The program has received 4,000 applications for assistance so far, which Sikes said should be within the program's current budget.

(Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)

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